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Are charity Chairs on a high wire with no net?

John Williams is Vice Chair at the Association of Chairs.

It’s been a tough 12 months for Chairs and trustees. The charity sector has faced unprecedented challenge and criticism, and much of it has focused on apparent failings in governance and leadership. Chairs especially are under pressure to ensure their boards are responsible and effective, while continuing to deliver the maximum impact for their beneficiaries.

The Association of Chairs (AoC) was set up three years ago to support charity and other non-profit Chairs, and to champion good governance and leadership in the sector. Chairs tell us they find their role rewarding, but a surprising number say that they find it more lonely, demanding and complex than they expected. Even those with the most stellar CVs and broad skills and experience can find themselves outside their comfort zone.

Yet it is clear to us that there is neither a consistent nor sufficient level of support offered to Chairs, and this has been starkly confirmed by our recent survey.

Using our substantial database, we researched 360 respondents in a chairing role, including 140 AoC members. We found high levels of commitment to the role - 54% of Chairs spend four days or more per month on their chairing role - but there are significant gaps in support.

Overall 46% of boards have no budget for board development; only 19% had a formal allocated budget, with the remainder addressing development on a case by case basis. Perhaps more surprisingly is that only 34% of Chairs had an induction, arguably the most basic form of support.

The main support Chairs received was access to publications, conferences and events, and administrative support. Apart from publications, fewer than 50% had accessed any kind of development support in the last 12 months, with many restricting themselves to free sources of support.

It’s clear that there is too little financial and practical support given to Chairs for induction, training and personal development. A host of commentators and reports have argued that we need to raise the bar on charity governance. This is not optional - good leadership is critical to ensure charities achieve the social impact they seek. Both our experience and this research suggests that the appetite to learn and develop is there, but we need to find new and imaginative ways to step up that support. We will all benefit from this.

You can download more information regarding the survey results on the Association’s website.

We welcome your comments in response to this article which you can submit beneath this article, or contact John via Twitter.

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